Torture and Taxes – A critique of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the right thing to do?


I originally wrote this in November of 2009

Link to the NPR program cited below:

Justice: What’s the right thing to do


I heard recently that President Obama officially has a catchphrase; “It’s the right thing to do.”  This reminds me of a program I heard not too long ago featuring Harvard Political Science professor, Michael Sandel.   The topic was that of wealth redistribution.  The title; “Justice: What’s the right thing to do.”  I am wondering if this is the origin of the president’s new trademark saying.

Mr. Sandel teaches that there is nothing fair about the free market and that it is the role and obligation of government to step in and make things fair through the redistribution of wealth.

By way of example, Mr. Sandel highlights two judges that exist in the market; One being the chief justice on the Supreme Court of the United States and the other, Judge Judy.  He goes on to note that the Chief Justice makes about $200K annually while Judge Judy makes over $25MM.  According to Mr. Sandel, this is not fair and government should step in to correct this injustice.  Presumably by heavily taxing the salary of Judge Judy and mandating a pay increase for federal judges.

I would like to point out several flaws in his premise:


Being a judge is not the primary responsibility of Judge Judy.  She is, first and foremost, an entertainer.  Of the two, only Justice Roberts is primarily a judge.  These two people are not actually in the same industry and as such no actual comparison is possible.  This alone should be enough to refute the example.


Within the defined roles of Judge Judy and the Supreme Court Justice each is paid fairly.  Compare the salary of the Supreme Court to that of judges in the appellate courts and what do you find?  Supreme court judges earn approx $200,000 per year.  When compared to members of a lower appellate court who earn an average of $169,300 annually, a Supreme Court judge is paid well.

Judge Judy is actually a successful talk show host.  Her salary of $25 million appears fair when compared with another more popular host, David Letterman, who earns $45 million.  You don’t have to go to Harvard to realize that Judge Judy has more in common with Letterman than she does Justice John Roberts.


The guests on Judge Judy’s show must agree before hand to abide by her decisions and not seek further legal action.  For Judge Judy’s decision to carry any weight, her guests must agree to be bound by her terms.  They sign on the dotted line.  By contrast, the Supreme Court requires no such consent.  If power could be quantified and put into monetary terms, the Supreme Court Justice is compensated far more.  In fact, a Supreme Court justice wields power over life and death & their decisions affect the lives of every American for generations to come.  On the other hand, if you don’t like Judge Judy’s ruling you are free to change the channel.

On closer inspection, isn’t it unfair that Justice Roberts wields so much power and Judy so little?  They’re both judges right?  To make things fair, perhaps we should have let Judge Judy decide the outcome of Kelo vs. new London Connecticut.  The constitution would have been less tainted in the process, I’m sure.


Judge Judy will earn her salary only as long as she garners favor from her audience in the form of ratings.  A Supreme Court Justice is appointed for life specifically to shield them from the pressures of a fickle populace.

Personally, I don’t think it would be fair to anyone to give Judge Judy a show for life.

The reality of Mr. Sandal’s fairness is that he would apply it not to two successful people in the same industry but to the successful and the unsuccessful across all industries.  This is impossible.

Perhaps Mr. Sandal used a simple example in order to illustrate his point on the radio.  Maybe there are better examples he might have used, but he is a Harvard Political Science professor with an in depth understanding of this issue to the point of having written books and appearing on talk shows.  I can only assume this is the best he could come up with.

By virtue of his argument, Mr. Sandal demonstrates that he is incapable of understanding what industry someone works in, let alone what is fair.

Since each individual is the judge of what is fair for himself, the only way to achieve it is to stay out of it altogether.  To suggest that luck plays the major role in life belittles both success and failure, relieves the individual of all responsibility and makes government the arbiter of success.

At this point in the interview Mr. Sandel changed gears completely to discuss the morality of torture.

In this case, I thought his was a brilliant argument worthy of praise.  Mr. Sandel highlighted the idea that it is not the necessity of gathering information under a ticking bomb scenario that leads us to torture but the underlying belief that the victim deserves it.

To illustrate, Mr. Sandel asks us to suppose for a moment that the person possessing the information will not reveal it under torture in time to stop the ticking bomb.  Because of the time constraint, it now becomes necessary to torture the bomber’s 10-year-old daughter in front of him in order to make him talk.  All morality of the ticking bomb scenario goes out the window when faced with harming an innocent child.  This argument strips the will to torture away from all but the most evil among us.  Well-said Mr. Sandal.  Q.E.D.

I thought it unusual that Mr. Sandel would make these two points in the same discussion.  I also found it interesting that he could not (would not?) connect the conclusion of his second argument with premise of his first.

Both seek to harm the individual, supposedly in favor of the majority.

Let’s take Mr Sandal’s brilliant example of torturing the little girl and apply it to the notion of wealth redistribution.

Consider for a moment that even the poorest people in the United States are wealthy by global standards – for example, the poorest five per cent of Americans earn on average the same as the richest five per cent of India’s population.

If we are considering what is truly the right thing to do shouldn’t we consider all people and not just those in the United States?  Given that assumption it would now become necessary to raise taxes not just on the rich but also on the middle class and even the lowest income earners in America (for they are all seen by those in India as being fabulously wealthy).

The money collected would then be used not to help the poor in the United States but would go to help the truly destitute peoples of the world.  All funding to US programs would cease until the standard of living in the US were lowered and that of rest of the world had been brought up to a comparable level.

While I do not think this is what Mr. Sandal is proposing in the short term, I do think that this is his ultimate conclusion.  Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?  In 1913 the first income tax was 7% and only applied to incomes over $500,000 (Over $11MM in 2012).  Today, income taxes are well, you know.  I am not against Mr Sandel’s ideas of fairness and taxation because I hold any love for “rich people”.  I am against it because I know he will eventually get to me.  And you.

I submit that it is not the needs of the poor that leads us to tax the wealthy and the middle class as much as much as your desire to decide what is fair, the underlying belief that the rich can afford it and, let’s face it Mr. Sandal, your belief that they deserve it.

I am not in favor of granting government the power to decide what is “right” and ‘fair” for me.  I will do what I can.  If you want more convince me to help.  Don’t force me.  These are serious problems, if you can’t convince people to help willingly, then you’re not really up to the task of solving those problems anyway.


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